The perfect candidate

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 28 May 2024

Iran’s upcoming election will not merely find a successor for Raisi but will also strategically position Tehran for regional transformations, writes Manal Lotfy

The perfect candidate

 

Following the death of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash near the Azerbaijan border, the presidential succession race is unfolding intriguingly. Those who have declared their intention to run for the presidential election, whether directly or through close associates, make up a diverse array of candidates with varied backgrounds, visions and relationships with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This offers the prospect of a competitive election, contrasting sharply with the 2021 presidential elections, in which candidates were restricted to those favoured by the Supreme Leader.

Among the prominent names expected to run is Ali Larijani, former head of the National Security Council and former speaker of parliament. Known for his pragmatic approach and connections to both reformist and conservative camps, Larijani’s tenure in the National Security Council brought him close to Khamenei. However, Larijani’s support for former reformist president Hassan Rouhani, especially during the backlash from hardliners after Trump’s withdrawal from the 2018 nuclear deal, strained his relationship with the Supreme Leader and the conservative movement. This tension was evident when the Guardian Council barred Larijani from running in the 2021 election.

Following the deaths of Raisi, foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, and six other officials in the helicopter crash due to weather conditions, as the Iranian authorities said in their preliminary investigations, Larijani reportedly discussed his desire to run with Khamenei. This has fuelled speculation that the Supreme Leader may be open to a genuinely competitive election, rather than simply installing his preferred candidate.

In recent years, voter turnout in the Iranian elections had plummeted, reflecting widespread discontent and diminishing trust in the electoral process. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, average voter turnout has been about 80 per cent, but this dropped to approximately 45 per cent in the most recent elections. This decline concerns Khamenei, as it undermines the regime’s legitimacy amid significant internal, regional, and international challenges.

Another figure who has announced his desire to run is former Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, a seasoned conservative politician with extensive experience in nuclear negotiations, a priority for the next Iranian president. The current Speaker of Parliament and former mayor of Tehran Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf, who gained popularity during his tenure as mayor and emphasises improving economic conditions, is also likely to run. So is Alireza Zakani, the current mayor of Tehran who, despite his position and conservative affiliations, has very prospects due to his highly critical stance on reformists, making him a polarising figure even among hardliners. His decision to employ police officers to monitor hijab compliance in Tehran’s subway drew significant criticism from Iranian liberals.

Other traditional conservative candidates include Parviz Fattah, a former member of the Revolutionary Guard, and Mehrdad Bazrpash, seen as a rising star in the conservative movement. At just 44 years old, Bazrpash is the current minister of roads and urban development, having studied at two of Iran’s most prestigious universities, Sharif University of Technology and Tabatabai University in Tehran. Notably, Bazrpash was aboard one of the helicopters accompanying Raisi’s ill-fated flight.

So far, the reformist camp hasn’t put forward a definitive candidate. Mohammad Javad Zarif, foreign minister in Rouhani’s government, has ruled himself out of running, possibly to unite the reformist ranks behind Larijani. The Guardian Council’s approval of candidates will be closely watched to see if it includes Larijani and other moderate pragmatists alongside hardline candidates, ensuring a diverse slate that reflects Iran’s political and ideological spectrum. Such a move could invigorate the electorate and encourage higher voter turnout.

Fears of low voter turnout are not limited to reformists and pragmatists. The Iranian Nour News Agency, close to conservatives, warned that the lack of real competition might lead to continued boycotting by large segments of the middle class, university graduates, women, and youth.

In an ideal scenario, will Khamenei seek a candidate who embodies the strengths of several former presidents. He wants a leader capable of resolving persistent economic issues, akin to the late president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who revived the Iranian economy after the Iran-Iraq War. Additionally, he wants a president with widespread popularity, reminiscent of former reformist president Mohammad Khatami. Such popularity would confer legitimacy on the next president and the regime’s institutions, which is crucial for Iran in these challenging regional and international times. But Khamenei also wants a candidate who is loyal and aligns with his vision for Iran’s future, similar to Ebrahim Raisi.

Finding a candidate who meets all these criteria is exceedingly difficult. Many in Iran believe that, this time, the presidential candidate must have the support of the populace and be capable of effectively steering the country, particularly in terms of economic performance and regional and international relations.

The Iranian election schedule is as follows: Nominations will officially open from 30 May to 3 June. The Guardian Council will review candidacy applications from 4 to 10 June, with the final list of candidates announced on 11 June. The electoral campaign will run from 12 to 26 June, and elections are scheduled for 28 June. If no candidate secures over 50 per cent of the votes in the first round, a runoff will be held on 5 July .

The election of a new president over the next month or so goes beyond addressing the political vacuum left by Raisi’s absence. The new president will face significant challenges, both internal and external. Firstly, rapid regional transformations will pose complications for Iran. Days after Raisi’s death, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman called interim President Mohamed Mokhber to offer his condolences. While official Iranian media reported that Bin Salman agreed to visit Tehran, this has not yet been confirmed by Riyadh.

Relations between Tehran and Riyadh are steadily improving as the US is expected to lift its ban on the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, possibly in the coming weeks. This move would signify improved relations between the Biden administration and Riyadh. Senior US officials have also stated that Washington and Riyadh are close to finalising several bilateral deals, including a defence agreement and US cooperation in Saudi Arabia’s civil nuclear programme. These agreements could lead to Saudi Arabia normalising relations with Israel, although this hinges on the Israeli government’s approval of a Palestinian state, which seems unlikely given the current opposition.

The rapprochement between Riyadh and Washington, highlighted by their defence pact and nuclear cooperation, presents a challenge to Iran. Washington is framing this within a regional alliance of moderate countries against Tehran and its allies. However, Riyadh maintains that its agreements with Washington do not conflict with its relations with Iran. The next Iranian president will need considerable political acumen and diplomatic experience to navigate this issue, balancing improving regional relations with countering America’s efforts to isolate Iran.

The new president will also face other challenges, including countering Israeli efforts to have the Revolutionary Guard declared a terrorist organisation by several European countries. This issue is pressing, with 550 British parliament members supporting the move and the opposition Labour Party hinting at pursuing this designation if it wins the general election on 4 July.

Additionally, the president must engage in critical nuclear negotiations with the West. A confidential UN report indicates that Tehran has increased its stockpile of enriched uranium to near weapons-grade levels, with 142.1 kilograms enriched up to 60 per cent as of 11 May. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, has warned that Iran has enough weapons-grade uranium to produce several nuclear bombs. Highlighting the importance of this issue, Khamenei had appointed his top political adviser, Ali Shamkhani, to oversee the nuclear file before Raisi’s death.

Another challenge is to prepare for potential shifts in US policy should Republican candidate Donald Trump win the presidential election in November. Trump and other hardline Republicans like Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley, and John Bolton have advocated for halting Iran’s nuclear programme by military means. The new president will need to develop strategies to address this possibility.

Such internal and external challenges underscore the necessity for a president with extensive political experience, a strong international and regional reputation, and popular acceptance. Consequently, predicting the roster of approved candidates for the presidential race is difficult. Khamenei, in pursuit of the ideal candidate, may unveil an unexpected choice that surprises everyone.

 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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